Purple Rain (1984)
In 1981, Fame, sung by Irene Cara, won an Oscar for Best Film Theme Song. Maybe Prince’s eyes were on the same prize, because later that year he took hefty inspiration from its lyrics, particularly its opening lines, to create Baby I’m a Star, and then began to step up his own ambitions to star in and soundtrack a motion picture. He was moderately famous but in the words of his new demo, he didn’t want to stop until he reached the top. This movie, he believed, would be the rocket to take him to that highest strata of stardom.
The following year, after a concert film called The Second Coming was planned, filmed and abandoned, Prince wrote 11 pages of a rough plot outline for a feature film that would eventually – via a relay of two screen writers – become Purple Rain. On the last page he jotted down possible songs for inclusion and topping the list was his Fame-inspired demo. Next on the list was I Would Die 4 U. Every other song from Purple Rain hadn’t yet been written, but here was the film’s party crescendo duo baked in from conception.
In this early synopsis, he details his lead character’s motivation: “Prince wants to make it. Bad. He wants fame and fortune and everything that goes with it”. On Baby I’m a Star his character aims to achieve this by walking the walk. Repeating I Wanna Be Your Lover’s opening line, he tells us he “ain’t got no money” but he self-identifies as a star and acts like the world just hasn’t cottoned on yet. Fake it til you make it.
Prince talks about this power of self-identity in his autobiography. He believed his youthful complexion was because he simply didn’t think himself as wrinkly and he connects this mindset to a technique called visualisation, where you write down what you want to happen in order to make it come true. As a boy, he would write vision lists of all the girls he liked so they would start noticing him. We can only take his word for the success of this approach, but if he wrote Baby I’m a Star to manifest stardom, no one could argue with the results.
In the film, the song arrives as a victory parade. Mission accomplished. Yes, the overdubbed backing vocals channel Sly and the Family Stone and tell us “we are all a star” but that’s just the movie tying up a thematic arc. A bit of housekeeping so we don’t think it’s only the Kid’s boat being lifted on the rising tide. He hasn’t forgot the lesson of collaboration but the main headline is his dream has come true. He is now a star, not just in his head but in the eyes of everyone in the venue, and the wider world will follow after the freeze frame. The Kid, and in the climactic moment his guitar, can’t control their excitement as he struts triumphantly, cavorting under the Broadway lights of newly-won fame. The bookending reversed messages about ignoring criticism (“fuck them! what do they know, all their taste is in their mouth”) now incongruous with this revelling in adoration.
In real life, Baby I’m a Star served the same purpose on the accompanying tour. This is Prince’s moment and he may be basking in it, stretching the track out to ever longer proportions, but he’s giving the crowd everything he’s got in return. Herculean choreography, a well-oiled Revolution put through the wringer, celebrities and entourage joining the jam on stage. He lied about stopping when he reached the top. He doubled down on his craft. By the end of the tour, fame’s hangover will have truly set in but right now, he’s on top of the world and milking every last drop before the party ends.
And Prince did win that Academy award. Purple Rain was voted Best Original Song Score, giving him the only Oscar of his career. In his acceptance speech he said “I could have never imagined this in my wildest dreams.” On the contrary, I believe that after he wrote Baby I’m a Star he imagined that moment every single day until reality caught up with his vision.